One evening last summer, for reasons I can neither adequately remember nor explain, I found myself at the ‘alternative’ 300th birthday party for Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in the outdoor courtyard of a former squat in Geneva.
Being neither an expert on Rousseau nor a French speaker, I sat awkwardly through the lengthy speeches from local historians and activists, while an English-speaker patiently filled me in on the history of this cooperative-run apartment block; how it had been earmarked to be bulldozed to make way for a supermarket in the midst of the city’s 1980s housing crisis before being squatted by a band of community activists who had, eventually, secured ownership rights to the building.
Finally the speeches ended, and the party switched to an activity I could understand: eating. Heaps of sausages and vegetable cous-cous appeared as if from nowhere, and people squeezed alongside each other on long picnic tables to tuck in and chat. Any divisions among the group were invisible as private tenants and former squatters alike talked and laughed and kept each other’s glasses filled with cheap red wine. Nobody seemed to object to my presence as an uninvited stranger taking far more than my share of sausages, a greedy Anglo-Saxon unacquainted with their continental and collectivist ways. They explained to me that, while this was a special occasion, they often met as a group to share a meal, and that this ritual fostered the community spirit which enabled them to successfully organise and manage the once dilapidated but now thriving property. I remember feeling a distinct sense of warmth, a convivial and exciting atmosphere as people bonded over the breaking of bread.
This is the kind of scene that Tim Smit, the founder of Cornwall’s Eden Project, has been creating all over this country through his latest brainchild, The Big Lunch. He was at the RSA last night, along with the broadcaster Fi Glover, Linda Quinn from the project’s backer The Big Lottery Fund, and Jonathan Carr-West of the Local Government Information Unit, to discuss what can be learned from The Big Lunch project about community building.
The title for the evening’s event was ‘Where Does Responsibility For Community Lie?’, and this is a question that greatly interests me as a project developer on the RSA’s Connected Communities programme. Is it possible for a third party or an external campaign to help build social capital and encourage a community spirit, or can such feelings only be aroused by people acting independently and spontaneously? Does government have a role in creating the conditions in which communities can flourish? What is the role of business and the third sector? And what the heck do we mean by ‘community’ anyway?
Smit and his co-panelists had much to offer on these subjects and much besides. Smit talked about how food, and the British institution of the Sunday lunch, is a crucial element in encouraging people to gain the confidence to knock on each other’s doors and turn strangers into neighbours. This, in short, is what Smit claims an external project like The Big Lunch can do; in his words it can ‘give people permission’ to overcome shyness and take responsibility to act in the community.
Smit said that he hopes that within ten years the pizzazz of ‘The Big Lunch’ branding and publicity won’t be needed, and that a regular, grassroots ‘neighbours day’ will have outgrown the initial project. But he also sees the potential for something much bigger to emerge out of the initial small-talk that occurs over an outdoor dining table. Especially keen Lunch organisers are invited down to The Eden Project for training as social activists and organisers, and are encouraged to develop the confidence to help mobilise communities in new and potentially radical ways. In the modern context of the traditional, hierarchical modes of centralised politics being seen to be losing relevance and influence, Smit says that ‘the potential for a really powerful social force’ lies among horizontally-organised groups of citizens.
Back in the present, Carr-West was on hand to discuss the impact of The Big Lunch to date, following the publication of his report on the project. Headline figures of 8.5 million participants over four years, with 82% reporting that they felt closer to their neighbours as a result, are remarkable, but some of the more qualitative observations are just as significant. Conversations, he said, weave the fabric of communities and allow people to feel better about themselves while also building social capital. He pointed to evidence that an increase in social capital is good for people’s health, it’s good for the economy, and it helps to lower crime. Furthermore it cannot be monopolised – or cut – by governments as it is held collectively in society. And yet the public sector does have a role, he maintained, in helping to connect community activists with one another to run services, provide social support, and enact change, with local councils especially well-placed to facilitate a kind of ‘connected localism’.
All of this may sound like a lot of lofty talk when placed alongside Big Lunch photographs of people wearing face-paint and cutting Victoria sponge cakes underneath lines of bunting. But the culturally ingrained custom, built up over millennia, of people coming together around food in an atmosphere of sharing, warmth and safety, allows for social connections to form. And as the RSA’s Connected Communities programme helps to show, our social networks go a long way to determining our wellbeing, our employability, our health and our ability to get things done in society. And that is something that my erstwhile dining companions in that housing cooperative in Geneva are living testament to.
Mental health is a globally pressing issue. Conservative estimates suggest that 400 million people worldwide suffer from various mental illnesses, while the World Health Organisation predicts that by 2030 depression will be the world’s leading cause of the burden of disease, with mental health problems already exacting a greater toll than tuberculosis, cancer, or heart disease.
Yet look at this global picture more closely, and to some observers it appears as though this burden might not be spread evenly around the world. With recovery rates for schizophrenia and depression in the USA, UK, and other wealthy countries worse than those in Nigeria, India, and other developing nations, it looks as though the poor world is outperforming the rich when it comes to dealing with some mental disorders.
Theories as to why this may be abound. These range from the perhaps outdated and stereotypical idea that there is a greater tradition of family and community solidarity in economically developing nations, to the social anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann’s theory that a combination of greater stigma and “disgraceful” normative care practices in the West often mean that sufferers of devastating mental disorders like schizophrenia concurrently experience a range of other afflictions – ostracism, homelessness, poverty, substance addiction and a set of humiliating interpersonal experiences that she calls ‘social defeat’.
Last night, in his RSA lecture entitled ‘The Global Mental Health Crisis: What the rich world can learn from the poor’, Professor Vikram Patel of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine offered a slightly different perspective. Focussing on access to care, he gave examples of the relative ingenuity of mental health care practices in countries like India, where he has done extensive work.
There is, he said, no shortage of psychiatric professionals in wealthy Western nations; for example California alone has more psychiatrists than the whole of South Asia. Despite this, some 60% of people with mental illness symptoms in the USA do not access any form of psychiatric care. The UK, even with its free-of-charge National Health Service, only performs slightly better, with 40% of sufferers not seeking or receiving treatment. As explanations for this he pointed to the sometimes alienating, over-complicated professional culture of DSM-influenced approaches to mental illnesses in the West, and the remoteness of psychiatric practitioners to their patients in both lifestyle and outlook as reasons for people not knowing about or feeling they can access services.
By contrast, he presented a model of public health in India that, with limited resources in the form of professionals or pharmaceuticals, utilises lay community health workers to provide collaborative, locally appropriate community-based care. Specially trained lay workers operate under the direction of psychiatric professionals to provide outreach services, ‘psychiatric first aid’, and social interventions based in the home, in a Wellcome Trust-funded controlled trial, documented in a series of documentaries available online.
Back in the UK, the RSA is looking to draw upon a similar approach as part of its Connected Communities project, which seeks to explore ways of building resilient communities in which people’s wellbeing and life satisfaction benefit from social connections with their peers. Working with Nicky Forsythe of Positive Therapy, we shall shortly be launching an innovative Talk For Health peer support programme which will train key members of community networks as lay counsellors, giving them the confidence and knowledge to take the therapists’ skills of empathy, non-judgemental listening, and conversational support out of the doctors’ surgery and into the hands of the community. In Bristol, we’ve just launched an innovative tablet computer app called Social Mirror, which volunteer health champions will use to help people map their social networks and, where necessary, receive suggested social prescriptions. Simultaneously, we are working with Talk To Me London to launch an exciting pilot project in New Cross that seeks to encourage Londoners to engage in conversations with strangers, with participants identified by their ‘Talk To Me’ badges which show that they are friendly and willing to chat. The designers of the project promise that it will “be the most innovative, culture-changing campaign of our times”, so stay tuned for more on that.
With ever-increasing strains on public health and social care budgets, and worrying research that demonstrates links between social isolation and the risk of mental illness and death, it is hoped that we can learn much from Professor Patel and others in the ‘poor world’ who are demonstrating that innovative, ingenious social interventions can help manage the burden of mental illness by supporting connected communities. Keep checking this blog, follow #RSAConnected and @SocialMirrorApp on Twitter, or email firstname.lastname@example.org and ask to join the relevant email lists to keep updated with how this work progresses.
Mark your calendars – tomorrow is the first International Day of Happiness!
“On this first International Day of Happiness, let us reinforce our commitment to inclusive and sustainable human development and renew our pledge to help others. When we contribute to the common good, we ourselves are enriched. Compassion promotes happiness and will help build the future we want.” – Ban Ki-Moon
In July last year, the General Assembly of the UN agreed to mark March 20th as a day for celebrating and spreading happiness, and educating ourselves and others about it. Three key pillars are recognised as being required for global happiness: economic, social, and environmental wellbeing.
This Huffington Post article by Randy Taran of Project Happiness provides a great overview of the day, with details of the story behind the UN resolution, suggestions for how to participate on the day, and ways to boost your own happiness. I encourage you to read the article and explore the numerous hyperlinks she has provided.
We tend to think about wellbeing often in the Social Brain Centre, because along with the critical external variables of economic stability, democracy and environmental sustainability, we believe that our internal habits, attention, and decisions influence our wellbeing as well.
Just yesterday, Emma wrote about achieving a state of ‘flow’ out on the slopes, and the deep satisfaction that comes with such a focus of attention. Also related to attention, research has shown that those who seek out the positive are more resilient to stress and anxiety, and interestingly, it seems that we can be trained to pay attention in various ways. Gratitude lists may also be a helpful tool in focusing on the positives in our lives.
In a blog post from earlier this year cheekily entitled The Key to Eternal Happiness, I reposition the want/should conflict and suggest that to help maintain or improve wellbeing, we should try to make things that are good for us in the long run also fun to do now. So if it is difficult to motivate yourself to work out at the gym, invite a friend to go with you and focus on the immediate reward of getting the chance to catch up with each other and share a laugh.
Elsewhere in the RSA, the Connected Communities team explores the impact of our social and community networks on our happiness and wellbeing; check out this video about the Social Mirror project to learn more about their important work. And last night the Whole Person Recovery team hosted an event in Tonbridge, where Andy Gibson of the Mindapples organisation spoke about getting our mental 5-a-day.
What will you do to celebrate the International Day of Happiness and help to spread happiness, joy and peace to others? The day’s website urges us all to ACT:
A- Affirm the pledge to bring happiness to others
C- Cheer ‘happy heroes’ and celebrate their good deeds
So start thinking about what you can do to improve the happiness and wellbeing of others around you, and don’t stop after tomorrow!
Being a social brain researcher, I frequently find myself reading about, thinking about and talking about concepts of human behaviour in the abstract. We might be working on an idea as to how to help people alter their habits, make decisions differently or change their patterns of attention, and at times it can all seem quite far removed from the quotidian reality of my own life. So, it’s great when, on occasion, these things come to life and I experience them directly.
When it comes to attention (one of the three key themes underpinning the work of the social brain centre) the concept of ‘flow’ is, of course, of interest to us. Flow describes a state in which one becomes completely immersed in an activity, having a kind of energised focus that is fully directed at the activity and utterly absorbing. It is often associated with artistic and sporting pursuits like playing a musical instrument, tennis or chess.
Without wanting to crow about it, I’ve just returned from a week of skiing in the French Alps, and, throughout the week I found myself most definitely in a state of flow. For me, skiing is the perfect activity to generate flow.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who first described the concept, says that the necessary conditions for flow include being faced with a task that has clear goals requiring specific responses. The goals must be both challenging and attainable, and the task must be an intrinsically rewarding activity. So, skiing certainly fits the bill according to these criteria
The real beauty of flow is that the effect of being profoundly focused on the activity leads to your awareness of everything else falling away, even your own emotions
More than that, I think skiing works for bringing about flow because it is challenging both physically and psychologically. It requires me to be to completely “in” my body as well as exercising my mind in ways that I don’t usually have to. Certainly in the early days of learning, it was necessary to overcome a whole load of instincts (i.e. when faced with a steep slope that you don’t want to career down, completely out of control; lean forwards).
The combination of needing to command your body to move in unfamiliar ways (subtle flexing of the ankles makes all the difference!) whilst not overthinking is massively challenging. Think about what you’re doing, so you do it right, but don’t think about it too much, or you’ll end up all stiff, rigid and robotic, and therefore unable to move in the right way. Like many activities that result in flow, the best skiing (at my intermediate level, at least) happens when you stop being too conscious of the precise, separate actions, and just allow the whole to come together.
My best moments of flow happened when the challenge was great enough to require total focus
When it does, there’s really nothing like it. My best moments of flow during the week happened when the challenge was great enough to require total focus. An extremely steep mogul field (bumps), with a base of ice, covered with a layer of soft fresh snow, plus the helpful addition of the occasional loose rock. Skiing through the forest, having no choice but to find a way to turn, even if it looks a bit too tight or precipitous. When the alternative is to crash into a tree, you suddenly find that you can pull off manoeuvres that you wouldn’t have thought you were capable of had you had time to think about it.
The real beauty of flow is that the effect of being profoundly focused on the activity (be it skiing, playing chess, or whatever) leads to your awareness of everything else falling away, even your own emotions. This, perhaps paradoxically, brings about a spontaneous sense of joy.
Sounds like something we could all do with more of in our lives. But is it possible to engineer? Csikszentmihalyi’s book, Finding Flow, suggests that there are steps you can take, but in my view, flow is somewhat elusive. It’s unrealistic to wake up on a Monday morning and decide to get yourself into a state of flow. In spite of this, some surprising research has shown that more occasions of flow occur at work than in leisure time.
According to those who’ve looked into it, jobs involving activities like problem solving, evaluation and planning are particularly likely to generate flow. Come to think of it, that’s starting to sound quite a lot like my job. But do I really experience flow at work on a regular basis? There are certainly some aspects of my work which I get utterly absorbed in, but I would say the rhythm of my work is such that it’s actually quite difficult to let the flow flow, as it were.
In fact, I think flow is increasingly difficult to access, as our world becomes punctuated by hyperconnective interruptions. As I’ve said elsewhere, there is now an expectation that we are permanently available, along with a near-addiction to getting new information, through our email accounts, Twitter feeds and personal networks. These phenomena are surely major threats to flow. Flow at work seems highly unlikely to occur when you’re in an open plan office, with phones ringing all around, colleagues popping in to ask quick questions, and the general hubbub and buzz of a busy office.
I’m sure that Csikszentmihalyi is right in saying that specific goals requiring specific responses, challenge and attainability are needed to produce flow. In the context of work, though, I would say that uninterrupted time, and the right conditions in terms of space are just as important. How can you really be lost in flow with a pinging smart phone by your side? For me, and I don’t know whether I’m alone in this, the physical dimension also seems critical. Sure, I can get lost in writing up a report, but it’s never as complete, as total as the flow I experience when I’m on skis, trying not to crash into trees.
Matthew Taylor has recently written several blog posts about the need to reconsider care. His suggestion that secondary school pupils should be required to do 100 hours of caring as part of a compulsory work experience programme seems like a good one for lots of reasons.
Acquiring the skills of caring early in life can only be an advantage, and raising the profile and status of care are important likely benefits of such a scheme. In general I think working with young people in schools is a valid way to try to achieve cultural shifts across a generation.
Shouldn’t offering care be something that we all do, in some form, and continue to do throughout our lives?
But I also think that it can be an effective strategy for sidestepping our own responsibility to contribute in areas that we recognise as important, but might not want to engage with directly. For those of us who left school years ago and are busy working full time, developing our careers, or in Matthew Taylor’s case, running the RSA, the idea of doing a bit of hands-on care as well might seem unfeasible, not to mention unappealing.
If we are in broad agreement with Matthew’s arguments, shouldn’t offering care be something that we all do, in some form, and continue to do throughout our lives? It occurs to me that there might be scope for companies and organisations to set up schemes in which employees are encouraged to offer their time as voluntary carers during work hours.
There is at least one precedent in which a company has decided to donate employees’ time to charities. The housing association, First Ark Group, has recently made the decision to donate 500 days of staff time to volunteer in local good causes. In the Guardian’s report, published on Monday, First Ark explain that they see their responsibility to the community as extending beyond doing their ‘bread and butter’ work in the best way possible. Being a force for good and building genuine connections with the community are also key priorities and donating staff days is one way of making these things happen.
There is plenty of evidence to indicate that volunteering is good for us. It’s not just good for our communities and for the organisations, individuals and groups who receive voluntary help, it’s also good for the volunteer. In addition to the fact that volunteering brings the opportunity to learn new skills and build different kinds of relationships, it’s also good for our overall wellbeing. It has the feel good factor.
So, if an organisation were to introduce a caring scheme, what would it mean for the workplace? I suspect it would be likely to increase morale amongst staff, raise pride in the employer, develop a reputation for being a socially responsible organisation. If staff throughout organisations, from chief executives to managers to cleaners were all expected to participate, it would give the entire workforce a shared experience and sense of solidarity.
What about the likely costs? How could any company afford to donate staff time to offering care? What would the impact be on individuals’ time management and workload? According to First Ark, these problems are easily ironed out quickly, and all it takes is a bit of adjustment. Tot up the amount of time staff waste at the water cooler, and we already know that being present at work 100% of the time doesn’t amount to 100% productivity.
It will be interesting to see how First Ark’s scheme works out, and whether they continue with it beyond this year. It seems to me that if we really care about care, we should be prepared to demonstrate that by actually getting involved ourselves. The way working life is structured makes it a tall order to expect people to volunteer to care in their spare time, but I wonder how prepared we would be to do it if it became part of our working lives.
Mind published an interesting blog post on their website today, in which a woman with bipolar disorder describes the importance of her spirituality in staying well. The spirituality she describes is explicitly non-religious.
It’s interesting to contrast her experience with the recent finding that people who are ‘spiritual but not religious’ are more likely to experience mental health difficulties than those who belong to a religion.
Mark Vernon’s piece discussing this is well worth reading. It occurs me to that the writer of Mind’s blog post is absolutely right in saying that giving due attention to spiritual needs is long overdue.
It’s important to make a couple of points about the framing of this issue. Firstly, that ‘spirituality’ can be more than merely ‘new age’ and secondly, that it doesn’t always have to be juxtaposed with religion. Indeed, the Social Brain Centre is in the early stages of exploring how spirituality might be reconceived based on new understandings of human nature, and there will be more about that here soon…
Fancy losing weight, looking younger, living longer, fending off Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and even cancer, whilst eating whatever you want? This is only some of what the 5:2 fasting diet claims to offer, and the only catch is that you have to fast twice a week. The ‘fast’ days do not require complete starvation, but instead involve heavily restricted calories – 500 for a woman and 600 for a man. It’s up to the individual how to make up the calories, but the suggestion is that you eat breakfast and one other meal, either lunch or dinner.
The evidence is strong that it’s a very effective way to lose weight. But there’s more to it than that – much has been made of the link between this pattern of eating and increased longevity. Research conducted by the Baltimore National Institute on Aging indicates that levels of the hormone insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1) are lowered by twice-weekly fasting. Controlling levels of IGF-1 can promote longevity as well as offering protection against a range of diseases.
High levels of IGF-1 are thought to increase the cell divisions associated with cancer, hence the possibility that reducing it may offer defence against it. Although this evidence is encouraging, the sceptical scientific community still feel that more extensive research needs to be conducted before conclusions can be drawn. Some critics have suggested that the extremes involved might result in the development of eating disorder, although there is no hard evidence for this either.
Could it be that eating hardly anything twice a week is doable because of the fact that, for the rest of the time, one is at liberty to enjoy whatever one fancies, be it cake, steak, or booze?
Since the BBC broadcast a documentary about it last year, the diet has grown hugely in popularity, with celebrity support coming from the likes of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. Is there something different about this approach to reducing the amount we eat, or is it just another boom and bust fad diet like Atkins or Dukan? According to those who champion it, this approach to reducing calorific intake is much easier to sustain because of the fact that five days out of seven are unrestricted.
Could it be that eating hardly anything twice a week is doable because of the fact that, for the rest of the time, one is at liberty to enjoy whatever one fancies, be it cake, steak, or booze? However hungry you might get on the fast day, is the knowledge that you could have a full English breakfast the next day enough to get you through?
It seems to me that this particular approach to eating might not only be easier to stick to than others, but could also encourage deeper consideration of one’s relationship with food. Having not tried this diet myself, I can’t comment from first-hand experience, but I suspect that on fast days, you are more acutely aware of your body’s need for food than on days when you’re eating whatever you want. By deliberately depriving yourself of the ‘usual’ amount of food, you are choosing to make yourself somewhat uncomfortable which much have psychological and maybe spiritual effects as well as physical ones.
The Islamic month of Ramadan uses fasting as a way of teaching Muslims self-discipline, self-restraint and generosity, as well as encouraging reflection on the suffering of the poor, who may be forced to fast through poverty. Being hungry is used as a vehicle for nurturing the skills needed to maintain self-control – acting as a tool for sustaining mindfulness. Perhaps some of these benefits can be gained through regular intermittent fasting as well.
Advocates of the 5:2 diet talk about quite enjoying the feeling of hunger (knowing that it will be short-lived) and of feeling exhilarated on the fast days and liberated on the days when no restrictions are in place. From the various accounts I’ve read of doing the diet, I have not seen explicit mention of spiritual or psychological benefits, but I have a suspicion that impacts on these domains may go some way towards explaining its popularity.
I recently came across an interesting blog post on a psychology website, written by Raj Raghunathan. The title alone, Happiness Now, or Happiness Later?, evokes a series of questions: Which is better? Can we choose? Can’t we have both?
We can have it both, as it turns out. However, many of the things which bring us happiness now are not the same actions that will bring us happiness later. This is not at all a new conundrum, and is in some ways similar to the want/should conflict described by economist Max Bazerman and colleagues, which arises when we have competing internal preferences. I want to eat a big slice of that triple layer chocolate devil’s food cake right now, but should forgo it for my future self’s health and happiness.
But not all behaviour must be either-or. The Happiness Now or Happiness Later article presented this in an interesting graphic:
I have written about the want/should conflict in the past, and more specifically about the use of commitment devices to temper or overcome the urge to do what we want so that we can do what we should. But when we superimpose the want/should axes onto the happiness now/happiness later graph, it seems to give the whole issue a slightly different feel.
Whereas when looking at the issue as a want/should conflict it seems easier to think of the ‘should’ behaviour as somehow morally superior to the ‘want’ actions, this is altogether less clear to me when framed as a ‘happiness now’ versus ‘happiness later’ question. In the latter framing, it seems much more obvious that we should seek out those actions that satisfy both – that bring us perpetual happiness you might say.
While commitment devices can be really helpful to help get from Quadrant 4 (‘want’/‘happiness now’) behaviour to Quadrant 2 (‘should’/‘happiness later’) behaviour, ultimately we should all be seeking out Quadrant 3 behaviour in the first place.
We should be seeking out activities that bring us both short term happiness and long term happiness, those that we both know we should do and that we actually want to do. And where that is not possible, we can try to reframe those activities that bring us long term happiness as being fun in the short term, too.
We should be wary of rationalising our Q4 behaviour as somehow being able to fall into Q3. Trying to convince ourselves that junk food will make us better off in the long run is not the answer. Instead, we might try to shift our Q2 behaviour over to Q3, that is, to make the behaviour we know we should be doing for the benefit of our future-self more enjoyable in the present. This might be by actually making it more pleasant to do right now, for example with small incremental near-immediate rewards, or perhaps by an attitudinal reframing (“I know I should go jogging for my long term health, but I also really want to go out on that jog today because the sun is shining and I’ll feel great as soon as I’m done…” )
Of course, I don’t know what the key is to eternal happiness. And writing this blog post has probably thrown up more questions to ask myself than it has provided answers. But I love charts and graphs, so it is an interesting exercise to connect the want/should conflict with the happiness quadrants. It may be a new way of looking at what may already be obvious to some: we should be seeking out activities that bring us both short term happiness and long term happiness, those that we both know we should do and that we actually want to do. And where that is not possible, we can try to reframe those activities that bring us long term happiness as being fun in the short term, too. Perhaps this is all easier said than done. I’d love to hear you thoughts.
Today I’m writing from Sheffield, where I’m attending the North of England Education Conference (NEEC 2013). This year’s theme is ‘Mind, Brain, Community: Inspiring Learners, Strengthening Resilience’. Day one was crammed with fascinating talks. It will take me some time to digest it all before writing about it more fully at a later date, but here is a sample of some of the points that stood out from the day:
Interschool collaboration – Rt. Hon. David Blunkett emphasised the need for school-to-school collaboration, stating that schools cannot succeed by turning in on themselves but instead must work together. He recommended the recent Academies Commission report Unleashing Greatness , which was launched last week at the RSA, as an insightful overview of collaboration and other pressing issues.
Rt. Hon. David Blunkett…commended the recent Academies Commission report Unleashing Greatness, which was launched last week at the RSA, as an insightful overview of collaboration and other pressing issues.
Wellbeing and wellness domains – Dr Isaac Prilleltensky led a very energetic keynote session. He argued that to date, there has been a focus on bio-psycho domains of wellbeing, and not enough focus on social aspects of wellbeing such as community and family life. Further, he emphasized that wellbeing must be evaluated by both subjective and object measures.
And, much later in the day, Caroline Sarajoni Hart echoed Prilleltensky when she spoke about teacher wellbeing, saying that no one measure of wellbeing should be used as a meaningful proxy for overall wellbeing. Hart discussed Sen’s Capability Approach to get the audience thinking about how to convert teacher aspirations into capabilities or options for action.
Attunement – The concept of attunement came up in several sessions. My understanding of attunement is that it is a form of reciprocal, self-reinforcing interaction and an effective response to the other’s needs; so a baby will mirror his mother’s smile, and the mother replies to the baby’s cries with food, soothing caress, or a fresh nappy as appropriate. Both Zoe Brownlie and Marlo Winstead explained the importance of caregiver / child attunement for healthy brain development and ultimately student engagement in school years.
These were just a few of the many topics discussed. I’m looking forward to tomorrow…
This, believe it or not, is a photograph of a year seven pupil improvising Romeo and Juliet. Even more surprising is that this pupil was one of a group that started this Shakespeare workshop only a few hours earlier professing that they either knew nothing about Shakespeare or that what they did know of him was “boring”.
This was how my day began when I visited Windsor school in Germany last week as part of a partnership project between the RSA and SCE (Service Children’s Education). The aim of the partnership is to support SCE as two of its schools in JHQ Rheindahlen are due to close along with the Garrison. The focus at Windsor school is to teach the students about Shakespeare whilst also helping them to develop competences from the RSA’s Opening Minds framework which they can call upon during this challenging time and in their future lives.
The pupils’ initial reaction to a day of Shakespeare reminded me of the way in which I and many of my peers greeted Shakespeare learning at school. However, the workshop that followed could not have been more different. After watching the Globe’s promotional video Stand Up For Shakespeare, in which celebrities, such as Judi Dench, explain that Shakespeare is to be acted and not read, we followed their cue and began improvising scenes before even glancing at a script.
Following the truly inspirational facilitation of our lead partner, SCE’s Performing Arts Consultant Joy Harris, the students were led through a number of exercises that helped them to break through Shakespeare’s intimidating language and recognise emotions and scenarios that are common to all people of all ages and times: children and adults, Tudor subjects and modern day citizens. By mid-morning the students were leaping around the room, brandishing imaginary knives and reciting lines from the play, unscripted.
With the children’s excitement and imaginations ignited, my role – to introduce competences such as ‘risk taking’ and ‘feelings and reactions’ – was made much simpler. The children were fully engaged and able to relate the discussion to a present experience. They were, for example, able to put themselves in Juliet’s shoes and explore the risks that she took in marrying Romeo and taking the poison, and to debate whether her actions were admirable or plain foolish. Through the prism of the play and an exploration of the motives and emotions of the characters, they were able to develop a deeper understanding of the competences.
All of this is even more astonishing when you consider the uncertainty that these children face. Apart from the fact that they will not be in that school next September, many do not know much else about what the next year holds. It is hard to imagine the implications this has for them personally, as well as for engagement and morale within the classroom. A number of children will not be able to see the project to completion and, for one pupil, this was their last day in the school. Despite this, every child actively participated and the staff and the school’s Head fully supported the unique experience that they were able to gain that day.
I also learned a lot from the visit – and not just that Shakespeare is not as boring as I had remembered. The whole experience was an extremely powerful demonstration of how pupils become more engaged in learning if they are doing rather than just listening. This approach may seem more easily applicable to drama than other subjects, such as Maths, but maybe it is this pigeon-holing that we need to break away from.
As I approach the end of what is sadly my last day at the RSA (as I will be moving to a new role at Cubitt), my visit to Windsor has also helped me to reflect on the amazing experiences that I have gained here and to think about how I will utilise them in my next role. Perhaps, though, it will be twenty years down the line that I will draw on something that I have learnt here, and the people that helped form that learning won’t have any idea of its application. In the face of what could easily be a sad and demoralising year, the teachers at SCE remain passionate about ensuring that their students access unique opportunities that they can reflect on and use in the year and years to come.